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, 6 (4), 504-10

A Reappraisal of the Possible Seizures of Vincent Van Gogh


A Reappraisal of the Possible Seizures of Vincent Van Gogh

John R Hughes. Epilepsy Behav.


The tragic life of Vincent van Gogh is summarized, emphasizing his early departure from formal education, failure as a successful salesman in the art world, attempt at religious studies, difficulty with female and family relationships, return to the art world, and tendencies toward extremes of poor nutrition or near self-starvation and excessive drinking and smoking. In Paris he joined the Impressionists, but drank very heavily both absinthe and cognac. Southward he went to Arles and was joined by Paul Gauguin, with whom he had major personality problems, causing van Gogh to cut off part of his left ear. He experienced paranoid ideation and confinement in mental institutions in Arles, and then returned to Paris and onto Auvers-sur-Oise, where he committed suicide at age 37. Possible physical diagnoses include glaucoma, Meniere's disease, acute intermittent porphyria, and chronic lead poisoning, but these diagnoses seem unlikely. Possible psychiatric diagnoses include borderline personality disorder, anxiety-depressive disorder with episodes of depression and hypomania, and also paranoid schizophrenia. Van Gogh did not have spontaneous seizures and, therefore, did not have epilepsy. Before he began to drink heavily, when he was near starvation, he had "fainting fits," and after drinking, especially absinthe, a convulsant drug, he continued to have similar attacks. His episodes of unconsciousness can be well explained by chronic malnutrition and alcohol abuse, only possibly exacerbated by drinking large quantities of absinthe. Although van Gogh is an excellent example of the Geschwind syndrome, at times associated with temporal lobe epilepsy, this fact does not establish such an epilepsy. Thus, the syndrome is an orphan without the parent condition.

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